SITA's Jihad Boueri talks smart airports technology

Jihad Boueri, vice president of Airports and Airlines, SITA, shares his company's latest advances within the 'smart airport' environment
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Jihad Boueri, vice president of Airports and Airlines, SITA.
Jihad Boueri, vice president of Airports and Airlines, SITA.

AVB: Can you quickly delve into the various platform solution that you have designed to help airline connectivity in the “smart airport” environment?

Jihad Boueri: Airports are the centre of the industry’s communications and are becoming ever more connected. By 2030, 18,000 airline communication connections will be needed at the world’s airports. The smart airport market in the Middle East region is expected to reach $850m in spending by 2020.

The number and size of airports is also rising; 500 new airports — a 30% increase over today — and a 40% capacity growth in existing airports. The challenge the industry faces with this expansion is having reliable, secure, high performance communications — consistently across the world’s airports – for airlines, ground handlers, maintenance companies, other airport tenants and the airports themselves.

One way SITA is meeting this demand is by rolling out AirportHubTM — its shared communications platform — to a growing number of airports. Today SITA has implemented AirportHubTM at more than 400 airports in more than 100 countries spanning the globe from Anchorage to Auckland.

SITA AirportHubTM is an airport-wide shared connectivity platform that ensures airports can provide their airlines, ground handlers and other tenants with secure and reliable bandwidth, including wireless connectivity to access off-airport applications.
AirportHubTM makes it easier than ever before for airlines to connect all their applications and IT systems at an airport quickly and easily. It removes the complexity of dealing with local telecom providers and adds flexibility and agility to route management.

AVB: Last year, SITA was tapped by Saudi Arabia’s GACA to help modernise the country’s airports. Can you share details on the collaboration and the various areas SITA will work on improving?

JB: Saudi Arabia’s General Authority of Civil Aviation (GACA) partnered with SITA to support the modernisation of 26 airports across the country.

The collaboration marked a major milestone in the partnership between the GACA and SITA.
As part of the technology upgrade, SITA is deploying its AirportConnect Open platform, which can be leveraged by airlines to work seamlessly at airports using common facilities. It also offers a self-service experience from check-in to boarding.

Additionally, the platform delivers future-proof infrastructure that will support the implementation of new solutions such as biometric single-token travel and common-use payment systems.

It has also been supported by the introduction of Wide Area Network (WAN) and Local Area Network (LAN) connectivity across all airports.

SITA is also offering GACA a baggage management solution that allows GACA airports to meet the baggage tracking requirements of IATA’s Resolution 753. SITA’s technology will enable airlines to track and capture baggage data at check-in, loading onto the aircraft, transfer and on arrival.

Simultaneously, SITA is installing its airport management solution and flight information display system at Jeddah’s King Abdulaziz International Airport. The new solutions will offer real-time information to help GACA proactively manage their resources across the airport.

The airport management solution will be implemented at an additional 21 GACA airports before the end of the year.
SITA has also installed Airport iValidate gates at Jeddah’s King Abdulaziz International Airport and Riyadh’s King Khalid International Airport. iValidate, a passenger document authentication system, automates verification of all types of boarding passes, including mobile boarding and home-printed passes.

AVB: One novel solution introduced in recent memory by SITA is its Smart Path solution. Could you share some more insights on what Smart Path does and its impact on the overall airport experience?

JB: SITA Smart Path is unique in the market: designed to meet the demands of the world’s airlines for a common-use, biometric, passenger self-service solution. Any airport and any airline using any common-use platform can use SITA Smart Path and the biometric solution can be extended throughout the airport to include any processes and checkpoints that require document checks.

This technology will be instrumental to achieving a walkthrough passenger experience by allowing passengers to quickly complete each step in the journey using their biometric as identity. What this means for capacity is that more passengers can be processed through the same check point, ensuring a steady flow of passengers through the various travel steps.

Increasingly airports globally are seeing the benefit of this sort of technology. We have Smart Path in use at five airports globally now, including Brisbane; Muscat, Oman; Orlando and Boston (with JetBlue) with several other US and European airports coming on stream this year.

AVB: In 2018, SITA unveiled its Air Transport IT Insights. What were some of the key lessons learned from the research? How have you moved to capitalised on those revelations?

JB: The Air Transport IT Insights 2018 survey showed that overall, investment in technology is rising, with airport spend rising almost 6% year on year to US$ 10 billion.

Technology which helps airports better manage the growth in passenger numbers is an area SITA is strong focused on. We are investing in technology to automate, and even, eliminate tedious processes in the airport making air travel easier at every step.

As an example, in the US, SITA’s biometric technology is being used in place of the traditional boarding pass, ID check and a government border check. This is the airline and government check in one step.

We trialed this technology at Orlando airport with British Airways and the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP). We gave British Airways’ passengers the option of biometric boarding at the gate, on flights from Orlando to London Gatwick and there was almost 100% take up. The airline was able to board a flight with 240 passengers in around 10 minutes. Based on this success, Orlando airport have now chosen SITA’s solution to be deployed at all of their 30 international gates and will be used by several airlines.

AVB: From your viewpoint, what technologies will become increasingly relevant in future designs of airport terminals and what factors are driving their development?

JB: Digitisation offers a wide range of possibilities. New technologies can be used to make airport processes more efficient, almost automatically resulting in an increase in capacity. The more we can automate the passenger process, the better and faster the travel experience, as we have seen at Orlando and other airports globally.

What we have also seen is that the more passengers use technology, the happier they are. The 2017 Passenger IT Trends survey showed that, for example, passengers who used biometrics over face-to-face transaction were more satisfied. In fact, they rated the biometric experience 8.4, well above the ratings for face-to-face transactions at passport check (8) and boarding (8.2).
Airports are exploring various technologies and establishing innovation partnerships to develop their capacities.

Looking specifically at IoT, our The Air Transport IT Insights 2018 survey shows implementation of Internet of Things (IoT) initiatives for airport-based passenger services remains low. Instead we see initiatives for operational services at airports have seen higher implementation with 27% having adopted ‘geographic information systems’, and 15% having adopted each of ‘monitoring airport-based equipment’ and ‘monitoring location/condition of assets’.

IoT, together with other technologies such as artificial intelligence will allow airports to better understand what is happening in their airport and manage their resources better. Baggage is a good example where IoT could be used to track baggage across the journey and using AI to make intelligent decisions on how baggage should be managed. 

Blockchain is fast emerging as the priority technology for future exploration among airport and airline CIOs globally. One of the key benefits of blockchain technology is the ability to have multi-enterprise applications. These work across multiple organizations locking data immutably into the blockchain rather than having individual applications running separately and exchanging data on a case-by-case basis. This is how this technology can provide a ‘single source of truth’ to all stakeholders.

Today, 59% of airlines have pilot or research programs planned around blockchain for implementation by 2021.

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